Coal Miner’s Son Dreams of NASA … Dennehy Is Big; Voice Like Shrapnel

Coal Miner’s Son Dreams of NASA

Here’s something unique to the point of bewilderment in the 1990’s: a family movie about the rarest of subjects-goal-oriented teenagers who don’t rape, pillage, plunder, strip, or wear condoms on their ears. The high school kids in October Sky are more focused on building their own spacecraft than stringing the prom with toilet paper. They are the children of hardscrabble coal miners in a barren and impoverished Appalachian eyesore called Coaltown, W. Va., who fight an uphill battle to fulfill their lifelong dreams, and the struggle is all the more compelling and inspired because their story is true.

The year is 1957. America is space crazy. Russia has just beat the United States to the draw by launching the Sputnik satellite, which is orbiting the Earth every 96 minutes. In dreary Coaltown, where every boy is expected to follow his dad into the black hole that provides every family with its singular source of income, the only way out is a college football scholarship. In this bleak and hopeless landscape, Homer Hickam Jr. (played by the charismatic, open-faced young actor Jake Gyllenhall) is an unusual oddball. Too small to excel at sports but brilliant in science, Homer’s idol is Wernher von Braun, not Elvis Presley, and when he looks up above the black smoke of the mines into the October sky, he sees a future beyond high school graduation that might be his one-way ticket out of hell.

His enthusiasm is not shared by his father (Chris Cooper), the mine foreman who expects Homer to spend the rest of his life with a shovel in his hands and considers the space program a waste of time and taxpayers’ money. Undeterred, Homer enlists the aid of three school chums and as a team they plod through one failure after another, learning from their mistakes, as they build their own launch site with filched lumber and nails, enlisting help from local welders, and paying for supplies by confiscating and selling the spikes and metal parts from a deserted railroad track. The only person in town who believes in them is their pretty, encouraging, goodhearted science teacher (Laura Dern) who even battles the principal and the sheriff to guide their science project to the winning spot at the county science fair.

Despite the skepticism of his own family, Homer leads the boys on to the national competition in Indianapolis, inspiring the entire community, but the school can only afford to buy one of the four eggheads a bus ticket, so it’s up to Homer to travel alone to glory, win his father’s pride and acceptance, and fulfill his own destiny. Watching him do it, you can’t help but cheer him on, although the outcome is seldom in doubt. (In the process, he finally brushes elbows with Wernher von Braun himself, and doesn’t even know it.)

There isn’t much suspense in how it all turns out. In the epilogue, we’re informed that all four boys went on to successful careers and Homer recently retired from a job as a NASA engineer that lasted 20 years. Some of the characters border on too-good-to-be-true caricature-the inspiring teacher with the terminal disease, the timid mother who finally takes a stand, the self-obsessed older brother whose own football scholarship makes him superior to Homer and his impossible dreams, the emotionally detached and inflexible father. You get the picture.

But October Sky is so well populated by a solid, earnest cast that these people all come alive through characterizations that throb with honesty and vitality, through the empathetic direction of Joe Johnston (the special effects wizard who shared an Oscar for Raiders of the Lost Ark ) and through a nicely observed sense of time and place and community spirit by screenwriter Lewis ( Ghosts of Mississippi ) Colick. The result is a colorful, credible and very moving tapestry of a living, working, interrelating small-town, blue-collar community that is superbly realized in a film that touches the heart. I can understand why it is prompting comparisons to American Graffiti and Stand By Me , but I was more closely reminded of the dramatically assured relationship between the bright Welsh coal miner battling the ignorance and poverty of a demoralized village and the courageous teacher whose guidance and stubborn determination paved the way for his college education in the famous Ethel Barrymore play and Bette Davis film The Corn Is Green .

When Homer temporarily deserts his science project after his father nearly dies in a mine explosion and finds himself lowered into the mine shaft to help out with mounting expenses at home, he looks up through the cage and sees the stars. Here, the film gets a bit heavy with visual symbolism. But for the most part, October Sky ‘s emotional centeredness and clear vision of intelligent kids with inquiring minds and uncompromising faith in a future they must carve for themselves with their own resources makes for an exemplary film that has the power to uplift the flagging spirits of people of all ages. The only remaining question is: Will audiences tired of depravity and mean-spirited violence lift a film of real values to box-office success? Your move.

Dennehy Is Big; Voice Like Shrapnel

Some notes on current people and things in New York after dark: In the triumphant 50th-anniversary production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman , Brian Dennehy carries his enormous bulk like the carcass of a dying hippo. This is a great thing to watch, because the sheer size of this man makes the tragedy of Willy Loman’s failure doubly moving. It’s always more poignant when a big man crashes.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to see the definitive original performances created by Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock, but they are available in the only televised version of the original production at the Museum of Television & Radio on West 52nd Street.

Fredric March was a pale imitation in the 1951 movie version and Dustin Hoffman came nowhere near it in the 1985 revival. But Mr. Dennehy brings to life the terrible fate of a loser trapped in the void of his own self-delusions with staggering emotional impact. He is the shabby, cheap, dishonest, insufferable big-talker filling his two sons with false hope that ruins their lives, but in his petty and selfish disposition he finds the glints of occasional tenderness in a man without a moral compass that are not always obvious in the text itself. Watching his bluster and garrulous bonhomie crumble, you feel stricken.

Despite her twitching and fluttering mannerisms, Elizabeth Franz, as his long-suffering wife Linda, finds the strength hiding behind her frail, birdlike exterior just as Mr. Dennehy finds the weakness hiding behind his girth. I’ve always found the play a bit of a long-winded bore, but while director Robert Falls dissects the small lives of insignificant people on their knees he also holds a mirror to the death of the American Dream in a superb production that has power and passion in it. It’s dismally depressing, but it whips you into an undercurrent close to the core of life and raises the theater season to heights of artistry.

On the club scene, noisy buzz lured me to check out one Natalie Gamsu, a white South African with a college degree in business administration who arrived in New York seven years ago and joined the New York work force, struggling girl-singer division. Translated, that means her day job is waiting on tables. Every Thursday night, however, she dons black feathers and sings Harold Arlen songs at the village club Eighty-Eights with a voice like shrapnel.

Can she sing? “My Shining Hour” is so flat it’s impossible to judge. “Come Rain or Come Shine” picks up a bit, but it doesn’t swing. “As Long as I Live,” which really is a swing tune, no getting around it, becomes a scream for help. Weaving around with a brandy snifter pretending to be a drunken barfly floozy, her “One for My Baby” becomes a slurred and mournful dirge. The fatal blows are a gruesome rendition of “The Man That Got Away” pulverized by so many outstretched arms and facial distortions it reminded me of a crucifixion, and a terrifying “Over the Rainbow” that strips Judy Garland’s trademark song of all innocence and joy.

With black fingernail polish and arms flapping like a demented swan, she hits so many clams she should open a fish market. Instead of the cool jazz intonation one expects from Harold Arlen’s blues-tinged torch songs, Ms. Gamsu’s rich but misguided contralto takes on the dark, stark bellow of a funeral mourner. Times being what they are, she probably spends her waitress tips on living expenses. One hopes if she plans to pursue a career in the saloon business, she puts a bit aside for a vocal coach. Comparing Arlen love songs to Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey doesn’t ease the tension. She says she grew up in the desert listening to Miriam Makeba. It is painfully obvious she should have been listening to Lena Horne.